The Semantic Web: The new Enlightenment in an Age of Unreason

Located in the King’s Library of the British Museum, off the east side of the Great Court, you will find the Enlightenment Gallery. This gallery is unique being the only permanent space that comes close to a genuine time machine. It takes visitors back to the age of the eighteenth century collector and organises objects to show the broad historical concerns studied by the wealthy scholars of the day. Their vigorous interest, underpinned by a position of economic dominance, was partly directed towards developing a more detailed and systematic (scientific) understanding of the world and humankind from ancient times. It was also a period known as the, ‘Age of Reason’.

However, the efforts of these private collectors meant that even the Royal Society’s collection came under increasing pressure due to competition with individual collectors for artefacts and specimens generated often by its own members, most notably Sir Hans Sloane. It was therefore hugely significant that Sloane’s own extensive collection of over 71,000 objects including flora and fauna, coins, prints and drawings, books, manuscripts and other curiosities found their way to the world’s first national public museum. In one single act (enshrined by Parliament) a collection previously only accessible to the privileged few became available to visitors who, as today, came to London from around the world.

As a result of this transfer from private to public, the British Museum of the time spanned both the artificial and natural world (including a substantial library), and would have been an awe inspiring (albeit sometimes confusing) experience for the new visitors – and for the new administrators difficult to organise and manage. Nevertheless the themes of scholarship previously only available to a privileged few became available for any visitor to cast their eye over and, over time, the British Museum would become a natural home for other previously private and inaccessible collections.

The more objects in the Museum’s collection the more evidence available to scholars to support developing theories and improved interpretations of our history. In some ways the eighteenth century preoccupation with collecting objects to solve the big questions of humanity equates to the modern day call of Tim Berners-Lee to support the web of data. To the modern day researcher the more available data the more comprehensive and valid the research and the better the quality of the conclusions. There are of course further comparisons with Sloane, the Royal Society and the British Museum in terms of levels of accessibility, competing interests and the ability to manage and make sense of ever increasing bodies of information.

However, the transfer of private collections into public museums and libraries went hand in hand with the development of different classifications that departed from some of the broader (or period) concerns of Sloane and his colleagues, evolving to match the academic and administrative agendas of more specialist museums. The eventual division of the Sloane collection is associated with the creation of the Natural History Museum and the British Library, but the result was not just a physical separation but the start of viewing objects and managing collections with different approaches, separate taxonomies and, as these new organisations established themselves, with very different organisational cultures. These new cultures created further internal divisions along departmental and administrative lines often resulting in more narrow agendas, perspectives and cataloguing habits.

Today an initiative to reconstruct the Sloane collection (‘Reconstructing Sloane’) is confronted with 250 years of separation. This means that the organisations involved need to embrace collaboration and attempt to bring together their accumulated knowledge, stored using different information schema and different terminologies, to answer a new set of questions prompted by digital unification. In this respect the Sloane project confronts the issue of how researchers will transfer the type of analysis currently reserved for smaller more narrowly focused and controlled datasets, to the issue of ‘big data’ typically dispersed and controlled by many different organisations.

The Internet provides the physical infrastructure to bring together different cultural heritage organisations, and the Semantic Web provides the protocols by which we may harmonise our data (or knowledge) and find new ‘enlightenment’. However, to establish true networks of knowledge will require new attitudes towards research, analysis, interaction and collaboration. The Sloane project may provide an interesting model for understanding the dynamics of collections working together to harness the potential of the Internet and to break the current collaborative stalemate created by a continued reliance on ‘Gutenberg’ publication models.

To manually sift through the different materials owned by the Sloane partners and attempt to uncover and understand their relationships would require more person years than any normal cultural heritage project team could hope to allocate. The use of already digitised material and further digitisation efforts mean that computers (and computing) can be used to help perform the analysis. But the requirement to search across natural history, textual, art and antiquity datasets from different institutions and answer questions as if the collection had never been separated requires a new and radical approach. The different proprietary schema need to be mapped to a common (and the author would argue Semantic Web) framework to create a digital version of the Enlightenment Gallery capable of supporting, not just one, but a multitude of different interpretations.

But what happens when organisations restrict access to knowledge and assets and insist on applying barriers for the sake of licensing revenue and off-setting publication costs. Putting aside the administrative overheads that these restrictions create it means that semantic relationships, and the potential inferences derived from combining and harmonising knowledge from different organisations, will be frustrated. Paywalls applied at any stage of this process will simply limit its effectiveness and reduce digital projects to staged productions perpetuating the charges of charlatanism and blandness thrown at many cultural heritage web sites.

The Semantic Web works by bringing together data so that relationships and connections can be discovered and explored rather than predetermined by individual museums views of the world. But the process of modelling and analysis of data across networks is fundamentally precluded by primitive commercial barriers and treasure house mentalities. For collaborations such as ‘Reconstructing Sloane’ the only feasible way forward is a reciprocal agreement to provide digital material to the project without access limitations and free from charges.

Why isn’t the principle of reciprocation (the cancelling out of charging between cultural organisations to reduce costs) applied universally and outside formal projects? We now have the strange situation in which anyone can reuse data and high resolution images online (and in real time) from the Yale Center for British Art (YCBA) without any correspondence with them whatsoever using open access and open standard computer interfaces, and others like the National Gallery in Washington is set down a similar path. Yet if these organisations wish to create their own web resource, say on the work of Constable or Turner (artists for which the Center owns very important examples), they are charged. Specific reciprocation agreements between certain organisations for certain limited projects, however, do not solve the problem of semantic and knowledge networks.

When you take into account the overheads of managing image licensing (and many organisations still do not understand the full cost); the savings that a free exchange of assets would provide (the costs of purchasing assets are never set against licensing income); and the benefits created by friction free networks of knowledge; then one can only conclude that the major concern for museums must be the perception that by providing free access they will somehow miss out on a bonanza of income that might present itself sometime in the future.

In reality any income streams are more likely to be associated with innovative services (what you do with digital assets rather than the assets themselves) which require an engagement, financial investment, resource and a degree of risk that most, if not all, museums are unable to consistently sustain. In any event, services of sufficient interest to a large audience will typically require the raw assets of a number of different institutions – a prime reason why they have not materialised (see the Constable example above).

Nevertheless the cultural heritage sector is fearful that the commercial sector will make profits they have missed or have been unable to generate themselves over the last 20 years. But what would happen if, like Yale University, the whole sector provided complete open and free access. It may well attract interest and may result in services with business potential (inspite of the free availability of the assets used in those services). The assets may be used for merchandising, they may provide services that make better sense of the mass of information made available – and they may or may not be successful in creating a profitable business model. It would certainly allow many more open access Sloane type projects at a fraction of the current cost and provide greater incentives for more organisations to contribute to larger networks of public knowledge.

For those who insist on finding additional income streams wouldn’t it be better to let others (commercial and non-commercial) take some of the risks and to encourage innovation from third parties for which we (in our aim to disseminate and educate) can only benefit. Shouldn’t the cultural heritage sector feel confident that successful models could easily be improved upon (if so desired) using those other assets that set the sector apart - our knowledge, expertise and reputations. Alternatively, we can reward the innovation of others, and potentially share in any benefits, by endorsing successful services that meet with our standards and approval.

In this new digital world museums have the opportunity to better use their knowledge, expertise and reputation to more fully and wholeheartedly engage with the cultural Internet if barriers to knowledge and content are lifted. They can still produce their own digital services (perhaps invigorated by a more vibrant digital economy), they can still attempt to generate income through their own services or through the endorsement of others work. But most importantly they can concentrate on their main reason for being and, extending the hopes of the private collectors of the eighteenth century, initiate a more inclusive, accessible and collaborative enlightenment towards a new digital age of reason.

Dominic Oldman